“No man is a hero to his valet.” –attributed to Madame Cornuel in the 17th century, but probably an old French or English proverb. But true nonetheless.
I’ve been reading Winston Groom’s “The Aviators.” Subtitle: “Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight.” It’s an epic read itself, not one you can whiz through. I’ve probably read a dozen other books while occasionally picking this one up and reading more. I finally finished it. The ending was noteworthy.
Winston Groom, you will recall, is the author of the Forrest Gump tale, a work of fiction. However, he has done a fair number of histories, very readable accounts of the battle of New Orleans, the year 1942, the Civil War battle of Shiloh, the siege of Vicksburg in the same war, and so forth. I’ve read most of them, and met him at a book signing in New Orleans maybe three years ago. I suppose he was tired, because I was expecting a little more from him in the way of an engaging personality, great stories, and witticisms. Anyway….
Here’s an interesting note from Charles Lindbergh. On March 30, 1944–in the middle of the Second World War–he was preparing for a trip to the South Pacific for the Army to check on a number of aspects on the conduct of the fighting war. So, before leaving, he bought some supplies: “At Abercrombie and Fitch he purchased a waterproof flashlight, and from Brentano’s he acquired a small copy of the New Testament, remarking in his journal that, ‘Since I can carry only one book, it is my choice. It would not have been a decade ago, but the more I learn and the more I read, the less competition it has.'”
Personally, while I appreciate Lindbergh’s words, I will not be attaching too much weight to them for the simple reason that in his last decades he kept moving farther and farther toward the bizarre. I will not belabor that point since readers may research his final years themselves if they are so inclined.
Groom gives us this intriguing statement about Lindbergh: “Charles had always been a man of many surprises, but perhaps none was more astounding than the revelation, three years after Anne had passed away (and 27 years after his death), that between 1957 and 1967 he had fathered seven children by three different women in Germany.” When asked about this, his youngest daughter Reeve, “who was as shocked as everyone else until she considered that ‘the arrangement made a certain kind of sense. No one woman could possibly have lived with him all the time.'”
Reeve Lindbergh remembered her father as deeply intelligent, a man of warmth and humor and charm. However, she also knew the other side of him. “I also remember my father as the most infuriatingly impossible human being I have ever known…. when he was home his very presence often crowded and startled every one else in the family, even the dog.”
At this point, author Groom reaches back to an earlier time for an analysis of Lindbergh. When, after Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh was a pariah because of his long opposition to U.S. involvement in Europe’s war and old friends pulled back from him, one friend in particular stood firm. When asked how he could still associate with Lindbergh, John Marquand said, “You’ve got to remember that all heroes are horses’ asses.” Groom says this does not negate all the hero achieves–“the splendid Paris flight, his contributions to aviation, his service in World War II”–but he was indeed “infuriatingly impossible.”
Since his book dealt with not only Lindbergh but also Doolittle and Rickenbacker, Winston Groom dutifully asks whether the latter two were also guilty of leading dual lives, one for public consumption and the other in secret. “A story about Doolittle having a fling has surfaced in a couple of books,” he says, “including one by his granddaughter. The woman in question was a New York model.” Sometime around 1940 she threatened Doolittle with blackmail if he didn’t buy her a fur coat. The various tales suggest that Jimmy Doolittle confessed the business to his wife Joe and promised to be good from then on. Joe, we are told, wrote a note to the woman and said, “Well, he never bought me a fur coat. I don’t know how you could possibly expect one.” And that was the end of it.
And what about Eddie Rickenbacker? Are there sordid stories of his dilly-dallying? He said, “I never had the time.” Winston Groom notes, “Nobody’s disputed him yet.”
We are indebted to these three champions and an untold number of others who by their exploits and deeds carved out the modern world. But we do not deny their humanity or dispute their frailties.
Charles Lindbergh chose as his epitaph this line from Psalm 139…
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. (v.9-10).
Even now, there are men and women doing things in laboratories and universities, in back yards and garages that will fill the biographies of future heroes. God bless those who are finding the cures to cancer, who are stopping wars before they get started, and who are saving the lives of countless unborn infants before they can be aborted.
Lead them please, Lord.
Uphold them with Thy righteous right hand. Amen.